Book excerpt: In ‘Ninety Percent Mental,’ Concord’s Bob Tewksbury explores the hidden game of baseball

  • St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Tewksbury throws a pitch against the Florida Marlins on Aug. 2, 1993, in St. Louis. AP file

Sunday, April 15, 2018

(The following is an excerpt from Bob Tewksbury’s new book, “Ninety Percent Mental: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball,” which was co-written by Scott Miller. Tewksbury, of Concord, played for the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres during a 13-year Major League career.)

‘Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” That’s what Yogi Berra said, mathematics and fractions be damned. Like Yogi might say, I was always interested in the mental side of the game before I knew I was interested in the mental side of the game.

You know those dreams where you’re running and running and running and no matter how fast or how far you run, you still cannot catch up to your target? Well, long ago, there was a bus. It was a team bus. The team bus of the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights baseball squad, and it was traveling toward a game.

Except, this wasn’t a dream. This was real life. And the issue was very, very real. I was a lost soul at the time, overwhelmed by the big university, head spinning from city life, a small-town kid trying on a pair of shoes six sizes too big. There were more people in my dormitory at Rutgers than there were in my entire hometown of Salisbury, New Hampshire. So as that bus rolled down the street past the post office, a bus I was supposed to be riding, I happened to emerge on foot from the post office at the exact same time. Talk about your wrong addresses.

Some of my teammates recognized me, the bus pulled over and from inside came the order from longtime coach Matt Bolger: “Get on the bus!” All of the players were dressed in uniform, prepared for the long, cold day at Seton Hall. Me? I was just walking from my dorm to the post office and back. I certainly wasn’t dressed for my punishment for mixing up my schedule and briefly going AWOL: shouldering the day’s grunt work by charting pitches for both ends of the doubleheader, from a perch on the cold metal bleachers. Looking back now from a few decades down the road, maybe I could read deep into this moment and philosophize about how in my second career, this incident helped me to identify others following their own path, allowing me to connect with guys like Lester, and Anthony Rizzo, and Andrew Miller, who would help pitch the Cleveland Indians into the 2016 World Series against the Chicago Cubs.

Or, maybe before you can help others, you simply must find yourself.

I had some searching to do in those early years.

I had landed at Rutgers because my high school principal, Bob Norton, played football and baseball there. He knew Bolger, helped get me some financial aid and, boom, I was in. Plus, in all of my small-town naïveté, I thought being in proximity to New York City would be a good thing for what I hoped would be my life’s work in baseball. As a proud son of New England, I well remembered the epic, one-game, sudden-death playoff between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in 1978 that sent the Yankees toward a second consecutive World Series title over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bucky Bleeping Dent, indeed. Boston loses, and I wind up over my skis at Rutgers.

Like so many other kids, I loved baseball from an early age. I grew up in a small apartment a block away from White Park in Concord, New Hampshire, an idyllic place offering the lure of baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, a pond and a swimming pool. One spring day when I was seven, I went wandering around the park, encountered a group of adults conducting sign-ups for the upcoming season and, well, with my mom and dad not with me, I signed myself up. A couple of days later there was a ringing telephone, a coach, a first practice, uniform No. 7 and, because of my strong arm, the third base job for the Concord Group Insurance team. I was on my way.

Later that summer, we moved to a small town called Salisbury, thirty minutes north of Concord, and only the location changed. My love for the game did not. All I wanted to do back then was play baseball, and each spring I couldn’t wait to get outside and get going. In those days, I dragged my brother Keith, who is one year younger than me, outdoors for games of catch but would become frustrated with his inability to accurately throw the ball back to me. So when that happened, I would throw the ball back to Keith harder, and then harder, and then ... of course, the result was he would quite often miss it and the ball would land in a distant snowbank or get stuck in the mud. And, of course, good old Keith would retrieve the ball and then intentionally throw it over my head, bringing a quick end to our game of catch. Ah, brothers.

Frustrated by these frequent disagreements, early in my high school years I would eventually walk up the street to a nearby elementary school packing a piece of chalk, a couple of old, scuffed-up baseballs, my glove and a vivid imagination. With the chalk, I would draw a strike zone on the school wall. With my feet, I would mark off sixty feet, six inches. With my mind, I would create a pretend, opposing lineup. Then, I would pitch. Unlike my brother, the wall always threw it back and was never a no-show.

Through plenty of trial and no small amount of error, and not that I realized this at the time, I was figuring out that so many limitations are self-constructed. Even though we may not see them as quickly as we would like, there are different paths leading around so many obstacles. We just need to find them.

It was during the summer before my senior year of high school when I collected some two-by-fours and some chicken wire and erected a crude, personal version of the popular pitchbacks that soon would be sold at a sporting goods store near you. Perfect (except for the part that I wasn’t exactly worldly enough to patent the darned thing). Now, I needed neither Keith nor any other battery mate. I could pitch and fine-tune my command on my own, spend all kinds of hours practicing my craft, home in on areas I hoped would take me deep into the baseball world even after my high school career was finished.

Obsessed, self-absorbed and often impatient – yep, three of the classic characteristics of a teenage boy – my brother Shawn, five or six at the time, one day accompanied me and kept drifting behind the screen. I warned him several times to move out of the way. Then he moved in too close one too many times, and what I viewed as my impeccable control suddenly abandoned me. Next thing I knew, I had drilled him right between the eyes, Shawn went down in a heap, blood pooled everywhere and I frantically carried him back into the house explaining to my mother what had happened. My parents rushed him to the hospital, twenty minutes away, and I sat home fighting to keep the demons at bay. I was sick over Shawn’s injury. Upset with myself for not being more patient. Guilt ridden about what this mishap would do to my parents financially, since they scraped to make ends meet, lived paycheck to paycheck, and I was sure they had no insurance.

Crazy, the moments and thoughts that stick with you from all those years ago. But they all flow into making us who we are today, building our character, shaping our thinking and, if we’re lucky, forging some of the mental tools that afford us the opportunity to fix things several miles on up the road when life periodically forces us to pull off to the shoulder, engine smoking. Had you told Shawn that night that I would go on to pitch for thirteen seasons in the major leagues with a walks-per-nine-innings rate of 1.45, No. 1 on baseball’s all-time list of starting pitchers since the dead-ball era (minimum 1,500 innings), I’m quite sure he would have taken issue with that.

Truth is, still awkward and lacking confidence, I wouldn’t have believed it, either.

(Excerpted from “Ninety Percent Mental: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball” by Bob Tewksbury and Scott Miller. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.)